Progress, nostalgia: Can Dashilar have both?

11 Nov 2014

RSP’s Beijing office team took part in the fourth edition of the Beijing Design Week (26 September to 3 October 2014) for the first time, presenting new ideas for Dashilar, on how it can balance old and new and manage change.  Located close to Tiananmen Square, Dashilar is one of Beijing’s oldest neighbourhoods with the largest variety of cultural environments and layers of history all squeezed into less than one kilometre. For most of its history, it served as Beijing’s central business district. In the recent years, it is at a crossroad between decay and possible creative revitalisation. As part of a pilot programme, the dialogue on revitalising the neighbourhood has become an integral part of the Design Week, seeking to generate new perspectives in making sense of its complex cityscape.

Khoo Teik Rong, RSP’s Senior Architect in Beijing elaborates on the team’s ideas and their hopes for this neighbourhood.

1. Why focus on Dashilar?

Dashilar appealed to us because of its fine urban grain and layered history. While China continues with its incredible pace of modernisation, there is a growing consciousness to also come to terms with its Chinese cultural roots and identity. With Dashilar, we felt like we had an opportunity to contribute to
this ongoing conversation.

2. To intensify land, you suggest a more modular approach.

When studying the area, we recognised that it would not be possible to develop large tracts of land without adversely affecting the existing character. Much of what is unique and special about Dashilar comes from its intimate urban fine grain, which would be lost if a typical top-down approach is taken when developing the sites.

In our “Dashilar Urban Acupuncture Series” exhibition, we proposed a series of very small insertions that would have a large impact on its revitalisation and renewal. These insertions are modular in the sense of being able to function independently as a single unit, while having the potential to combine with other units for a larger positive urban impact. Over time as more and more of these robust insertions occur, connections are made between them and the resultant urban fabric evolves while still retaining its intrinsic ad hoc vibrancy.

3. Tell us more about the courtyard house and extending public spaces.

The traditional Chinese courtyard house or Si He Yuan has a history of over 2,000 years and is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and philosophy. This is a very hermetic residential typology that shuns the outside world and looks into its own courtyard. As a result, most of the communal life occurs on the streets between the walls of these courtyard houses.

We wanted to capitalise on this by extending the public realm of the street inwards. Use of the Si He Yuan can be intensified and there can be more spaces freed up for the public realm. There is also an opportunity to reveal the mysteriously private interiors of the Si He Yuan. In Sanjing Hutong 26, we inserted layers of lattices and tiered platforms to create pockets of smaller spaces where new public activities can take place as an extension of the street life in Dashilar.

4. Your ideas even went into the back lanes of the Si He Yuans.

Utilising the no man’s land found between the back lanes of the Si He Yuans, this left over space can be enlarged to form a new communal green spine. Much needed greenery, civic spaces, electrical and sewage infrastructure can be inserted or relocated to this spine. To further strengthen this communal spine, the eventual densification of the Si He Yuans can be centred towards this spine and hidden within the urban block to retain the existing streetscape quality.

5. How did the residents react to your ideas?

Many of them were interested in what was going on in their neighbourhood, poking their noses about the various exhibitions and gallery spaces. They were pleasantly surprised when they had discovered our exhibition and other public spaces where they could linger around and enjoy conversations over tea. Some residents started coming over for tea every day, while local kids used the space as a play area. We had many candid conversations with the locals and the general sentiment was that all this dialogue and new ideas was a good thing. They hoped to see more of such experiments in Dashilar.

6. What's next for Dashilar?

After four years as one of the main sites for the annual Beijing Design Week, people are starting to realise that there are many possibilities of how Dashilar can continue to evolve. There are past examples of how other similar hutongs have been developed in a gentrified manner for tourists and the rich. These places often bear little or no resemblance to its past and appear ‘dead’. In Dashilar’s case, there is already a committee in place to safeguard the interests of the area, to develop it in a more sustainable way. So we can hope with optimism that Dashilar will not end up in a similar plight.